QotD: ‘Mothers on Trial’

Since I have been blogging about MRAs recently, and since I link to the piece in this comment thread here, now seems like a good time to cover Phyllis Chesler’s Book Mothers On Trial (and yes, the extract is hosted by Fox News, you won’t find me linking to them that often!).

It is a long article, but definitely worth reading in full, as it shatters the myth that the legal system favours mothers over fathers. She shows that (in the USA and Canada) when fathers challenge for custody of their children, they win 70% of the time, that mothers who have sacrificed their social and economic independence in order to be full-time mothers, will be passed over in favour of the father because he is, in the opinion of the judge, more interesting and exciting than she is.

Chesler writes about how men who have sexually abused their children are still granted access and even sole custody, and how mothers who want to protect their children are pathologised as ‘mentally unstable’.

It is also worth reading, now that joint custody is likely to become the legal norm in the UK.

Myths about custody still abound. Most people still believe that the courts favor mothers over fathers – who are discriminated against because they are men – and that this is how it’s always been.

This is not true.

For more than five thousand years, men – fathers – were legally *entitled* to sole custody of their children. Women – mothers – were *obliged* to bear, rear, and economically support their children. No mother was ever legally entitled to custody of her own child.

During the nineteenth century, pro-child crusaders gradually convinced the state that young children required maternal “tenderness” – but only if their mothers were white, married, Christian, and moral. The children of American slaves, of Native American Indians, of immigrant, impoverished, sick, or “immoral” parents—all were untenderly appropriated by slave owners and by the state. They were clapped into orphanages, workhouses, and reformatories or farmed out into apprenticeships for “their own good.”

By the turn of the century, a custodially challenged American mother enjoyed an equal right to custody in only nine states and the District of Columbia – and only if a state judge found her morally and economically worthy of motherhood. Until the 1920s, no American mother was entitled to any child support. Since then, few have received any.

The maternal presumption was never interpreted as a maternal right. The maternal presumption has always been viewed as secondary to the child’s “best interests” – as determined by a judge. This “best interest” was always seen as synonymous with “paternal rights.”

The contemporary fathers’ rights (or fathers’ supremacist) movement, which has been wildly successful in instituting joint custody and false concepts such as “parental alienation syndrome,” is also a throwback to the darkest days of patriarchy. It is not the modern, feminist, progressive movement it claims to be. Individual men may indeed be good fathers, and, like good mothers, they too may encounter discrimination and injustice in the court system. What I am talking about here is an organized political, educational, and legal movement against motherhood that has turned the clock back.

In the first [1986] edition of Mothers on Trial, I challenged the myth that fit mothers always win custody – indeed, I found that when fathers fight, they win custody 70 percent of the time, whether or not they have been absent or violent. Since then, other studies, including ten state supreme court reports on gender bias in the courts, have appeared that support most of what I say.

Today the same experts who once tyrannized women with their advice about the importance of the mother-child bond appear, in the context of custody battles, ready to ignore it or refer to it, if it all, as of only temporary importance. They view the mother-child bond as expendable if it is less than ideal or another woman is available. Perfectly fit mothers are viewed as interchangeable with a paternal grandmother or a second wife.

What’s changed [in 2011] since I first started researching and writing about custody battles?

Documented domestic violence does get factored in somewhat more than before. Where real assets exist, judges have the power to award more of them to mothers and children. Fewer mothers and fathers automatically lose custody or visitation because they are gay or because they have high-powered careers. However, certain injustices (crimes, really) that I first began tracking in the late 1970s have now gotten much worse. For example, battered women are losing custody to their batterers in record numbers.

Children are being successfully brainwashed by fathers, but many mothers are being falsely accused of brainwashing. Worse: Children who mandated reporters – physicians, nurses, or teachers – report as having been sexually abused by their fathers are usually given to those very fathers. The mothers of these children are almost always viewed as having “coached” or “alienated” the children and, on this basis alone, are seen as “unfit” mothers.

I understand that this sounds unbelievable. But it is still true. The mothers of raped children, who are also described as “protective” mothers, are seen as guilty of “parental alienation syndrome.” The fact that this concept, first pioneered by Dr. Richard Gardner and widely endorsed by fathers’ rights groups, has been dismissed as junk science does not seem to matter. Most guardians ad litem, parenting counselors, mediators, lawyers, mental health professionals, and judges still act as if this syndrome were real and mainly find mothers, not fathers, guilty in this regard. In 2010 the American Psychiatric Association was still fighting to include a new disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: the parental alienation disorder, to replace the debunked parental alienation syndrome.

When I was researching the 1986 edition of Mothers on Trial, joint custody was a totally new idea. Now, as I’ve previously noted, “shared parenting” or joint custody (defined in a variety of ways) is the preferred norm. Joint custody is seen as fair, progressive, feminist, and in the child’s best interest—even though a number of recent studies have shown that under certain conditions joint custody may be harmful to the children involved. Other studies conclude that we cannot prove that a particular custodial arrangement is either helpful or harmful to children.

For example, according to a 1989 study, “a link was consistently found between frequency of visitation/transitions between parents and [child] maladjustment.” The study also found that “children shuffled more frequently between parents were more exposed to and involved in parental conflict and aggression and were more often perceived by both parents as being depressed, withdrawn, uncommunicative, and/or aggressive.”

A 2003 study found that “alternating custody” – for example, week on, week off – “was associated with ‘disorganized attachment’ in 60 percent of infants under 18 months. Older children and adults who had endured this arrangement as youngsters exhibited what the researcher described as ‘alarming levels of emotional insecurity and poor ability to regulate strong emotion.’”

Unbelievably, mental health professionals tend to trust what a father tells them and to distrust almost everything a mother says. They routinely minimize male violence and routinely pathologize the normal female response to violence. For example, read the following evaluation from a Michigan case:

The mother presents as a tense, suspicious person rigidly fixated on her ex-husband’s so-called potential for child abuse. She and the maternal grandmother, an overly intrusive, controlling woman, have convinced this child to fear her father. While the father admits to engaging in mildly inappropriate fondling behavior with his young daughter and to an incident of “joyriding” with her, I believe these were isolated occurrences and would not occur if the father-daughter relationship was stabilized. The father’s continuing inability to pay child support should not be used to deprive him or his child of their relationship. I recommend visitation to the father and therapy for the mother to help her deal with her pathological dependence on her own mother.

Here is an evaluation from a New York case:

The mother claims that her son has been terrorized by his father during so-called drunken rages. She claims that the father allegedly threatened to kill the boy’s dog if his son didn’t obey him. The wife claims she has been battered and that her husband tried to control her every waking hour. I don’t see this. She is too self-confident, too bossy. This woman has her own business and earns more than the father does. The father has been in treatment for alcoholism and says he is now recovered. He lives with the paternal grandparents, who are prosperous. The boy needs to live with male role models, his father and grandfather, especially since his mother has a career and is obviously hostile to men.

It made no difference to either evaluator – one a man, the other a woman – that both fathers were verified as having been treated for mental illness and alcoholism, had been fired from jobs for “losing their tempers” and for repeated absences, and had often “disappeared” from home. That both mothers had been their children’s sole support, psychologically and economically, and had sought help from the police, hospitals, and, in one case, a shelter for battered women. None of this impressed the evaluators. Incredibly, these reports – and they are typical – found the mothers “guilty,” the fathers “innocent.”

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5 responses

  1. “I understand that this sounds unbelievable. But it is still true.”
    It really is difficult to wrap my mind around. I don’t know if I could believe it completely if I hadn’t heard a friend’s personal account of…well, all of it. TRUST WOMEN. TRUST WOMEN. TRUST WOMEN.

  2. […] In yesterday’s QotD I linked to this Guardian article here. In it, the spokeswoman for ‘Fathers4Justice’, Nadine O’Connor, is quoted as saying: […]

  3. Hi Seebster,

    I know, it’s very difficult to fully take in and understand the level of abuse that pervades society; not believing is, in some ways, necessary for survival, as to truly know and understand the extent of abuse would drive a woman mad.

  4. […] hope society generally will soon be able to give up on the myth that the legal system somehow favors mothers over fathers, here’s some more evidence of the fact that fathers’ rights are always given […]

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